Overview

Autumn view, with a streak of yellow near the summit from a broad-leafed tree. Could it be aspen?

This hike is a terrific introduction to the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. The car does the hard work and leaves you at an elevation of 8149 feet (2480 m) at Emory Pass. From there, follow a brilliantly maintained trail as it craftily navigates along ridge-tops and around hillocks to maintain an even strain and bring you to Hillsboro Peak at 10,011 feet (3050 m).

UPDATE  2/1/2014 – The Silver Fire has greatly altered the nature of this hike. See the Railroad Canyon post for a description of the effects of the fire. Greg, at Greg’s Running Adventures, has a post indicating that trail 79 to Hillsboro Peak is open.

Driving Directions

  • From Las Cruces, take I25 North from Lohmann Av.
  • After 59.9 miles (96 km), get off I25 at Exit 63.
  • At end of exit, turn left onto NM 152.
  • After 33.4 miles (54 km), turn right onto Emory Pass Vista Rd.
  • After 800 feet (245 m), the road ends at the trailhead

All the roads leading to the trailhead are paved. The last few miles of NM-152 are heavily switch-backed and likely to be hard on folks who are susceptible to motion sickness.

Trailhead

N 32 54.596′
W 107 45.839

Classic Forest Service trailhead. To following text, note the pit toilet at the top right of the picture.

The trailhead has a pit toilet and trash receptacles. I didn’t see any source of water. It is a large parking lot, but even at this time of year it was pretty busy by mid-day, the views are outstanding. To find the trail, walk back towards NM 152 (as if you were leaving). The trail departs from the road just past the toilet.

Hike

View east from trailhead. Looks like a great day ahead.

The hike is approximately 5 miles (8 km) long, one way. It begins at an elevation of 8140 feet (2480 m), and provides a net gain of 1,870 feet (570 m). This is reported to be a popular trail so an early start is worthwhile. The photo shows a dawn view from the trailhead.

The map of the hike, shown above, shows the trailhead in the south and the summit to the north. The trail depicted is somewhat speculative. Much of the hike is through forest and hard to spot from Google satellite photos. In particular the switch-backs depicted near the summit are creatures of creative cartography. However, the total distance is about correct and, be assured, you do encounter switchbacks near the summit. The two blue markers along the trail show where reliable GPS co-ordinates were taken.

An example of the large investment of labor hours on the Emory Pass to Hillsboro Peak trail.

A few notes on the trail. Most of the trail is maintained to a level rarely found outside of National Parks. The stone wall construction shown in the photo on the right attests to quite a few back-breaking hours.

As you leave the trailhead you take a normal track for a short distance – perhaps 0.2 miles (0.3 km) – before intersecting with a road. Remember this intersection!  Go right (uphill) past a heliport to follow the road to its end.  Again, study the intersection. There is a sneaky little trail coming in from behind you that might lure a weary but unwary hiker to an unplanned bivouac.

Point on trail at which the trail divides, to the left of the tree is the trail leading to the summit.

There are a couple other trail intersections, but these are almost all well-marked. The single exception is a fork in the trail encountered as the tread nears the summit. Common sense works, take the branch that goes most steeply uphill. That uphill tread, however, is not so obvious that you couldn’t walk past it in a trail-trance. The picture on the left shows a tree with a blaze. The summit trail goes to the left of the tree and the lower trail goes to its right.

The sign says GO BACK! (Actually, if you were to turn left (uphill) at this point, the trail will take you to the ranger station).

If you miss this junction and continue on the lower trail, then in just a few hundred feet you’ll come across signs for another intersection, shown on the right. Not to be discouraged!  It means you are very close.

Photo from tower: view of cabin and mountains to the east of Hillsboro Peak.

At the summit there are two cabins and a fire watch tower. The highest level of the watch tower was locked, but from penultimate level you can still get outstanding views.  The picture on the left shows one of the ranger cabins taken from the tower.

Descent is by the same route. The only navigational puzzle comes as you near the trailhead.  There, you will find a fork marked by a helpful (“HEY, WAKE UP”) cairn placed ambiguously between the two prongs. Go right, onto what is clearly the road that goes past the heliport. That will take you a short distance before you have to depart the road (to the left) for the trail leading back to the trailhead.

Recommendations

The trailhead at dawn.

Although an early start is recommended, you can over-do it (see photo to the right). In particular, a cool morning stroll is preferred since there was no hint of water along these ridgelines until you get to the summit. Other trip reports state that the ranger will often allow hikers to replenish from the summit cisterns. It appears, however, that the summit cabin is not manned at this time of year and two of the three cisterns were locked. The remaining cistern looked like it had dried out at about the same time that the dinosaurs perished. Just below the summit there is a sign saying “spring”, but my scouting efforts failed to turn up any flowing water. I had a little under a gallon in my pack, which was fine for this time of year.

View from where the trail first hits the dirt road leading to the helipad.

Aside from water issues, an early departure from the trailhead may reveal the sort of lurid-pastel landscapes that New Mexico is famous for. The morning sunlight penetrating into the forest and lighting up the surrounding hills was really amazing. It was so photogenic on this weekend that my progress through the woods was heavily compromised.

The skies were clear on the drive in, so it was chilly up at 8000 feet. It was nice to have a heavy shirt to wear over my normal hiking attire.

Possibly the best lunch spot in New Mexico.

Even in October, however, the need for extra layers faded by 10:00 a.m. Having lunch on the summit was pretty great. There probably isn’t much wisdom, however, in gambling that the winds will always be so still and the sun so much in evidence.

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